CALAIS — Three rows of men gather side-by-side, their heads bent down. A coffin lies on the sand, in front of them. They silently pray and place the coffin down a deep pit. Moussa Houmed was 17; he was Eritrean. He dreamed of setting foot on English soil, but ended up drowned in the retention basin of the Channel Tunnel.
A few meters from the Muslim section of the northern Calais cemetery, where some 50 men are assembled, three women are waiting to leave flowers. They come from Paris and Gex, in the Ain department, in Eastern France. "I didn't know him," one of the women admits. "My cousin who lives in the United States called and told me he was a distant cousin." Another explains that she found out about the tragedy from fellow Eritreans. "Being here, showing solidarity is the least we can do," she says.
Some of the gatherers have driven for six hours to attend the funeral. "He's like a brother to us. I used to be like him," says one Eritrean man, who traveled here from Cholet, in the West of France, where he has lived for the past five years.
"It's going too fast"
Charities and communities organize to take care of the dead of Calais — 10 since early June. They are Eritreans, Pakistanis, Ethiopians, Sudanese ... "There are too many of them, it's going too fast," says Lou Einhorn, a psychologist for Médecins du Monde (Doctors of the World).
The NGO has a mobile clinic in the camp — "the Jungle," as it's often called — that shelters almost every migrant. It is situated in an industrial zone called "the dunes," a few kilometers from the city center. "There are more than 2,000 people here. They don't necessarily know one another," the psychologist explains. "Newcomers arrive all the time. So, an Eritrean or a Sudanese may disappear without us knowing."
Médecins du Monde staff in Calais on Aug. 10 — Photo: Velar Grant/ZUMA
Police are even more in the dark and rely on the NGO for help identifying bodies or locating family members. Sometimes, investigations do not lead to anything. On July 4, a pregnant woman fell from a truck. She gave birth prematurely; her baby died within an hour. She then disappeared. "The morgue called us but we couldn't find the mother," says Einhorn. Baby Samir was buried July 13 in the southern Calais cemetery.
In mid-July, when a 23-year-old Pakistani man was electrocuted at the Eurotunnel site, the charity "organized a visit at the hospital and a meeting with the doctor and a translator to have him announce the young man's death to the community," Einhorn explains.
Remembering the dead
Mariam Guerey, from the Secours Catholique (Catholic Relief Services), guards the dignity of the deceased. She knows that Muslims prefer to bury bodies in France whereas Catholics and Orthodox tend to repatriate the departed. She remembers all of them. Jean-Pierre Everaere died while trying to rescue an Eritrean who fell in the Saint-Omer canal, 40 kilometers (25 miles) from Calais. It was in 2008. Both men drowned. "We attended Jean-Pierre's funeral with migrants. And we read a poem at church," she says.
In the jungle, resourcefulness is essential. Nima Senaici, a volunteer for the non-profit Muslim organization Aleds, recalls being asked for help once while distributing food. "A Sudanese man came to talk to me about his friend who was run over by a car. We launched a fundraising campaign and contacted funeral services," she says.
Corpses can stay several weeks at the funeral home before getting a grave. "We can wait for one month. Even less when we need room," says Stéphane Chochois, the head of the Forensic unit in Boulogne-sur-Mer. The forensic doctor carries out autopsies on migrants to rule out any other cause of death than the accidental one.
In the camp, stories circulate around death. On July 24, a car on the highway hit Ganet, an Eritrean woman, while she was coming back from the tunnel. In the jungle, some people say she was dazed from being gassed by police. Other women say she just wasn't paying attention.
There were also some uncertainties regarding the July 19 death of a man at the Eurotunnel site. The rumor that a truck intentionally rolled over him spread quickly. Dr. Chochois thinks the man likely fell. "He probably realized that the truck was going to France, decided to get off, slipped underneath and was caught under the rear wheels. His skull was spread over 5 kilometers."
Dr. Chochois has been participating for years in the "meticulous work" of putting names to lost lives. "We try to identify migrants through their fingerprints. But they cut their fingertips" — so as not to get send back to the country where they had been arrested and registered by police, he explains.
Even when the digital machine gives results, "it can provide 10 aliases," says Chochois. "So, when it's possible, we take a picture and we ask embassies to trace the family, using physical details. There have been very few tangible results. Most of the time, they're buried anonymously."